The photo I use on my site forms the backdrop of a spectacular bit of architecture from the late seventh century, the Ermita of Santa Mara de Lara de Quintanilla de Las Viñas. In my third post way back in October, I wrote about my first visit there, expecting it to be a relatively quick one, to take pictures of a site that I had read about and how that day became one of the hooks that bring me back here. In a wonderful bit of serendipity, I ended up hanging around and climbing this chunk of rock called the Pena of Lara. If you check back, you will have the whole story including photos of my friends and me climbing on a beautiful 20 degree February afternoon. That same day found me in the Casa Galin, a small hotel in a nearby historical village where I am now writing this post. It is my home away from home in Spain. I am welcomed back each time and recognized by some of the villagers.
Trusting that you have checked back and seen some of the lay of the land, I present you with a photo of where I was standing at the end of our hike up, taken recently by a friend of Antonio (he is the guide at the church, my friend) a hang-glider. Yes, that is snow.
The church was probably a small monastery built by aristocratic patrons in the decades just before the arrival of the Moors in 711. Only the apse and crossing survive; the nave would have collapsed at some point after the building had been abandoned and the stones taken to be used in other constructions. Look at the day – almost 20 degrees perfection! Like my first day here.
The tiny apse has three levels of remarkable friezes on the exterior; using such a high level of ornamentation was a traditional device to emphasize the importance (in Spanish, you would say la transcendencia) of this part of the church, the apse. Each level conveys a different message, the importance or transcendencia of the frieze grows from the lowest to the highest. The first level is a simple series of rolls with palm leaves and grapes or dates alternating. The palm leaf was a popular motif – the classical Roman symbol of victory here adapted to signify the victory of those faithful to Christ. The shell signified someone or something of importance, of trascendencia, and in this case, the doorway to the apse.
The upper level is a series of 10 animals, arranged from the middle moving outwards in pairs: lions (male and female), deer, griffins, possiby bears, and a type of cattle. Each has theological signifcance for the medieval mind. The lion is incredibly ambiguous, the king of beasts like Christ is king of the world, and at the same time, a dangerous animal who could tear you apart, like the devil who could destroy your soul. The medieval people also believed without question the legend that newborn lions were born either dead or blind, were kept in a cave by the female and on the third day the male entered and brought them to life or gave them sight by licking them – all symbols of the saving power of the water of baptism and of Christ’s resurrection from the cave (tomb) on the third day. A curious doorway into the medieval mind!
The style of the sculpture is refined, sophisticated, almost unknown at this time anywhere in Europe although we only have what has survived for comparison, the influences most likely from the Middle East.
Inside is another story, a very different style, almost as if the work had been done by children, deeply carved, two-sided in parallel lines. At the entrance to the apse, columns (reused from a Roman building) and imposts – a large type of capital. On the right, flanked by two angels, Christ as the sun, the rays emanating from his head borrowed from classical portrayals of Apollo, the Roman sun god.
On the left, Christ as the moon. I have found this motif in a variety of other places in churches in Spain. Source? Very simple, John’s Book of Revelation, one of the key books of the New Testament in medieval Spain, giving insight into their obsession with the coming Apocalypse. John writes that Christ is the sun and the moon, the alpha and the omega. To the left and right of Christ as sun god, you can see the Greek letters for the alpha and the omega.
The two very different styles – the same or different workshops? “Well, I have a theory, it is my theory, and mine alone.” Thank you, Miss Ann Elk. I shall take over now.
A couple of years ago, at the end of a day, Antonio and I went for a couple of hours walking through the hills. We returned at dusk and reopened the church. I came with a supply of candles and saw these more simply carved sculptures in candle light and it all made sense, at least to me. In the early morning darkness before the sunrise, the time of mass, the effect of the candles on these Christ figures would have been extraordinary, particularly for the lay people in the nave, the shepherds – reinforcing, reinforcing the divinity of Christ in the eyes and hearts of these uneducated ones who would have had a very rudimentary sense of what their faith was all about. Two different purposes for the sculpture – the ones outside and the ones inside; therefore, two very different styles done by the same team of sculptors. At home, I actually have some short videos of the candlelight working on these imposts.
One final shot, of the ermita from up top, taken that day in February 2009 before we made our descent.
On this beautiful Saturday (yesterday), with spring clearly here, I spent the afternoon chatting with visitors to the ermita (Antonio is bored after too many years of doing this), discussing its history and sculpture. Great conversation, even debate; one visitor had nothing but disdain for the architecture from this period. I had fun convincing him of its value and worth, or least, trying to convince him; you know how these Gothic freaks can be! My brief life as a tour guide.
Yikes, my longest post so far. No apologies; this could have been much longer. I barely touched the material in this tiny church. Count your blessings!